Ben Feller / Associated Press
ESCONDIDO, Calif. -- President Bush had a message Thursday for Southern Californians weary and frightened from five days of wildfires. "We're not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.," he declared in an eerie echo of what he once told Hurricane Katrina victims.
President George W. Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger walk through the remains of a home in Rancho Bernardo that burned down in the recent fires in San Diego County, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007.
On a damage-survey trip haunted at every turn by the ongoing Katrina crisis, Bush saw by air and on foot the result of fires that have raced through canyons and neighborhoods since Sunday. The blazes have killed at least three people, sent hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes and burned nearly half a million acres.
"We've got a big problem out here," the president said near the end of his quick, four-hour visit. "We want the people to know there's a better day ahead -- that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life's going to be better," Bush said. "And to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so."
Said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush's tour guide for the day: "The only way to grasp the true magnitude is to see it for yourself and to be out there with the people whose lives have been turned upside down."
Before leaving Washington, Bush said he aimed to bring assurances of federal help, comfort for those who have lost lives, homes and possessions, and thanks to overworked firefighters.
Greeted immediately upon landing in California with the smell of smoke, the president's first views of the devastation came via helicopter. Masks and small, wet towels were distributed to the presidential entourage to help cope with smoky conditions. A white film covered the sky and, as the choppers drew closer to San Diego, Bush saw homes that had been reduced to piles of sticks.
Bush then got a closer look.
In San Diego's hard-hit community of Rancho Bernardo, Bush stepped through rubble on a street of Mediterranean-style homes, where houses that remained unscathed were interspersed with what amounted to mere shells of the American dream. He stood with Jay and Kendra Jeffcoat near where a single spiral staircase rested amid rubble that used to be their home and where their burnt-out car had melted into the scorched earth.
Video: Watch the Story "Those of us who are here in government, our hearts are right here with the Jeffcoats," the president said, his arm draped around Mrs. Jeffcoat. Holding her small brown dog on a leash, she fought back tears and Bush kissed her on the head.
He shook hands at a makeshift disaster assistance center where government agencies and private companies are providing help to residents.
From there, the president's motorcade passed charred hillsides on the way north to Escondido, where he assessed that area's damage and addressed the public and about 200 tired-looking firefighters.
"We can't thank people enough for putting their lives at risk to help a neighbor," Bush said.
Amid all this pain were lingering memories of Washington's slow response to Katrina over two years ago, and how it damaged Bush's standing.
As the first natural disaster to begin to approach the scale of the Gulf Coast storm, the fires represent a tough test for the administration. Katrina, however, affected a far larger geographic area, knocked out all communications and most key infrastructure, and impacted a relatively poorer population and much less-prepared states.
With the White House determined to convey a picture of a speedy and effective performance this time around, Bush was asked to compare the two.
"There's all kinds of time for historians to compare this response to that response," he said.
Schwarzenegger, standing next to Bush on a cul de sac, said the president reached out to him earlier this week before he even had a chance to make the call himself. "I call this quick action -- quicker than I expected, I can tell you that," the governor said.
Later, in Escondido, Schwarzenegger was more effusive.
"I want to thank the president for coming out here today and being such a tremendous partner, such a great help, having done everything that needs to be done," he said.
Bush returned the praise for his fellow Republican. "It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead," he said.
It wasn't clear whether this was a subtle swipe at the Democratic governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, with whom the White House has traded blame for the problems after Katrina, which continue today with spotty rebuilding and recovery.
Blanco, though, resented Bush's remark.
"I was the only game in town, leading for nearly a week without the president's help," she said after learning of the exchange. "Of all the lessons learned from Katrina now being put into place in California, I would hope the one he would remember is that politics has no place in any disaster. While the promise of help from Washington is being extended, Gov. Schwarzenegger will have to work hard to make it a reality. In the meantime, Louisiana stands by ready to help with anything they may need."
Indeed, much of Bush's stay in California offered reminders of Katrina, with some of his rhetoric even remarkably similar.
For instance, Thursday's "we're not going to forget you" promise echoed what Bush said in New Orleans as he ended his first day in the hurricane zone on Sept. 2, 2005: "I'm not going to forget what I've seen," he said then. And Bush's "better day ahead" consolation in California recalled lofty words from his speech in New Orleans' Jackson Square on Sept. 15, 2005.
"I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood, or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter, it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come," he said.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said during a daily, multi-agency videoconference that he is worried about overextended firefighters but pleased with the federal government's overall performance this time, including the pre-positioning of people and supplies. "It could have been worse if they had not taken some of these steps," he said.
About 1,975 federal firefighting personnel and 57 aircraft are helping the effort in California, according to the Interior Department.
"This is not the end of federal assistance. It's just the beginning," said Fran Townsend, Bush's White House-based homeland security adviser.
A break in this week's high, hot winds, and a helpful change in their direction, had officials hoping they could make progress Thursday. Some evacuees were even being allowed back into their neighborhoods. But several fires remained far from containment -- even out of control -- and threatened thousands more homes.
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